July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 4: Scientists, Politics and Religion

Politics and science have become entangled on numerous occasions over the past several years. Conservatives have grown increasingly skeptical of the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change, even as climate scientists argue that this evidence is incontrovertible. Battles over the teaching of evolution in the public schools have continued to generate controversy. And most scientists say they believe claims that the Bush administration suppressed some research findings by government scientists.

This issue resonates strongly with scientists, but not with the general public. An overwhelming majority of scientists say they have heard a lot (55%) or a little (30%) about claims that the Bush administration did not allow government scientists to report findings that contradicted administration policy. By contrast, just 10% of the public heard a lot about the claims and 34% heard a little; most say they have heard nothing at all about it.

About three-quarters of scientists (77%) believe the claims about the Bush administration are true, while just 6% say they are false. And virtually all of the scientists who say these claims are true – 71% of scientists overall – believe that these practices occurred more often during the Bush administration than during previous administrations.

Among the public, most of those who heard about the claims about the Bush administration and science say they are true, but this constitutes a relatively small proportion of the public overall (28%). And just 17% of the public says that, compared with previous administrations, the Bush administration more often prevented government scientists from reporting research findings that conflicted with the administration’s point of view.

Scientists and Politics

A large majority of the public (76%) and nearly all scientists (97%) say that it is appropriate for scientists to become actively involved in political debates on controversial issues such as stem cell research and nuclear power.

Among the public, substantial majorities of Democrats (80%), independents (76%) and Republicans (75%) say it is appropriate for scientists to take an active political role on such issues. While older Americans (those older than 50) and less educated people are somewhat more likely to see scientists’ political involvement as inappropriate, majorities in all major demographic and political groups find this appropriate.

Most Americans do not see scientists as a group as particularly liberal or conservative. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think of scientists as “neither in particular”; 20% see them as politically liberal and 9% say they are politically conservative.

In contrast, most scientists (56%) perceive the scientific community as politically liberal; just 2% think scientists are politically conservative. About four-in-ten scientists (42%) concur with the majority public view that scientists, as a group, are neither in particular.

The scientists’ belief that the scientific community is politically liberal is largely accurate. Slightly more than half of scientists (52%) describe their own political views as liberal, including 14% who describe themselves as very liberal. Among the general public, 20% describe themselves as liberal, with just 5% calling themselves very liberal.

Most scientists identify as Democrats (55%), while 32% identify as independents and just 6% say they are Republicans. When the leanings of independents are considered, fully 81% identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 12% who either identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Among the public, there are far fewer self-described Democrats (35%) and far more Republicans (23%). Overall, 52% of the public identifies as Democratic or leans Democratic, while 35% identifies as Republican or leans Republican.

Majorities of scientists working in academia (60%), for non-profits (55%) and in government (52%) call themselves Democrats, as do nearly half of those working in private industry (47%).

Gaps in Political Values

The gap between the scientists’ political views and the public’s is seen across a broad spectrum of topics and issues. A far smaller share of scientists (40%) than the public (57%) agrees with the statement “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful.”

Scientists also are less likely than the public to say that business strikes a fair balance between profits and the public interest: Just 20% of scientists express this view, compared with 37% of the public. And while 78% of scientists say that the government has a responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves, a smaller majority of the general public (63%) agrees.

Just 14% of scientists agree that “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” That compares with 41% of the public. Just a third of scientists – but a majority of the public (53%) – agrees that “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength.” (For more on the public’s political values and belief, see “Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era,” May 21, 2009.)

Religious Belief and Affiliation

The United States is a highly religious nation, especially by comparison with most Western industrialized democracies. Most Americans profess a belief in God (83%), and 82% are affiliated with a religious tradition. Scientists are different. Just a third (33%) say they believe in God, while 18% say they believe in a universal spirit or higher power and 41% say they don’t believe in either. Just less than half of the scientists interviewed (48%) say they have a religious affiliation, while as many (48%) say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition.

A narrow majority of the U.S. public (51%) identifies as Protestant, including those who just call themselves “Christian.” About a quarter (24%) is Roman Catholic. The ratio of Protestant to Catholic identification is similar among scientists, though far fewer scientists are affiliated with either (20% Protestant, 10% Catholic). Nearly one-in-ten scientists (8%) are Jewish. By comparison, only about 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish. Among the large group of religiously unaffiliated scientists, about equal numbers describe themselves as “nothing in particular” (20% of all scientists) and as atheists (17%); 11% say they are agnostic.

Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. In addition, more chemists than those in other specialties say they believe in God. More men (44%) than women (36%) say they believe neither in God nor a higher power; belief in God is comparable for men and women scientists, but more women than men profess belief in a different supreme being or higher power.